Tommie Armstrong

CFT 2015 Preseason Preview: Top 25

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Yes, I know — another meaningless preseason poll tossed atop the overflowing pile of myriad other meaningless preseason polls. Hey, but at least this one isn’t SEC-heavy, so we have that going for us, which is nice.

OK, technically it’s not as SEC-heavy as others as this one contains “just” six teams from that conference and just two in the Top 10, the same number that comes from the Pac-12 for the former and one less than that league’s three in the latter.  For comparison’s sake, the preseason coaches’ poll included eight teams from the SEC (three in the Top 10), while the FWAA Super 16 poll saw five teams man those 16 spots (three Top 10 as well).

The Big 12 and Big Ten are also well-represented here, with four teams apiece making the cut.  The ACC brought up the Power Five rear with three teams included.

Rounding up the Top 25 conference-wise was one from the football independents (guess who!) and just one, Boise State, from the Group of Five.

Below is the entire Top 25, which was a consensus of polls cobbled together by myself, Kevin McGuire and three other individuals who would prefer to remain nameless.  Below that is where you may complain and/or whine and/or moan about how disrespected your team and/or your conference is.

Enjoy.  And complain/whine/moan.

1. Ohio State
With all due respect to those who think otherwise, how could any other be team be slotted in this spot? Not only are they the defending national champions who topped the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country to end the season — not to mention putting a 59-0 Big Ten title game pasting on a Wisconsin team that finished the season ranked 13th — but the Buckeyes return 15 starters from that squad. And then there’s the schedule. After a season-opening road trip to Blacksburg to take on Virginia Tech, the only team to leave a blemish on last year’s 14-1 mark, OSU will be double-digit favorites in every game leading up to the Nov. 21 home game against Michigan State. A repeat is far from a given, but given the combination of returning talent and schedule, it’s a given the Buckeyes will have a realistic shot at going back-to-back.

2. TCU
With Trevone Boykin back leading the offense as a Heisman Trophy favorite, you know the Horned Frogs should have plenty of sizzle on offense. TCU returns 10 starters on offense, and Gary Patterson should manage to keep the defense up to par to live up to Big 12 favorite hype. TCU could very well run the table this season, assuring the Big 12 of not being left out of the playoff this season.

cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpwu4ntgznjrlzde2ndvmzdaxndvhmmy1nwrlywu3ymq13. Auburn
As detailed in the Six-Pack of Storylines, the SEC’s hope for a return to Title Land could very well hinge on the Tigers.  And the Tigers return to prominence could very well hinge on Will Muschamp, the fired Florida head coach who was brought in by Gus Malzahn to revamp and rebuild an AU defense that spewed water and oil all over the field in 2014.  The run-heavy spread offense should be in capable hands, even with new triggerman Jeremy Johnson under center; how the defense fares with Muschamp as its general will determine just how far Malzahn’s troops will go in 2015.

4. Oregon
The Ducks may still be the team to beat in the Pac-12, but the gap could be closing between Oregon and other Pac-12 contenders. Gone is Marcus Mariota but the offense should continue to pile up big numbers with FCS transfer Vernon Adams likely stepping in. There could be a bit of an adjustment, and an early road contest at Michigan State could be trouble, but Oregon should still manage to be among the best out west.

5. Michigan State
The Spartans have one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Connor Cook, a stout offensive line and, despite the loss of coordinator Pat Narduzzi and all four “No Fly Zone” starters in the secondary, one of the top defensive in the Big Ten, but could still find themselves anywhere from a one-loss team to one with three or more.  Why the latter projection?  One, they have to replace their top two running backs.  Two, their schedule includes road trips to Ohio State, in-state rival Michigan and Nebraska, as well as a home game against an Oregon team in Week 2 that will be a consensus Top-Five squad.

6. Arizona State
In a conference with plenty of quarterback talent, Arizona State’s Mike Bercovici could be one of the best. With a sturdy offensive line in front of him, Bercovici will still have to build some new chemistry with his receivers, but D.J. Foster is back and he can provide some options in Todd Graham’s offense. Defensively the Sun Devils bring back seven starters and should be one of the more stable defensive units outside of Utah and Stanford.

(more…)

Pac-12 moves to 3-0 as Trojans (barely) bounce ‘Huskers

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To say that the Pac-12 has seen a successful start to the 2014-15 postseason would be significant understatement.

Utah kicked off the conference’s bowl season with a win over Colorado State Dec. 20.  Arizona State followed that up with a win over Duke earlier Saturday.  Next up was USC, and the Trojans didn’t disappoint.  Barely.

After taking a seven-point lead into halftime, USC (9-4) stretched its lead to 18 points at one point before hanging on for dear life and heading home with a 45-42 win over Nebraska (9-4) in the Holiday Bowl.  With 4:03 left in the third quarter, the Trojans’ lead was a seemingly comfortable 45-27; the Cornhuskers, led by interim head coach Barney Cotton, did not go quietly into the San Diego night, however.

A 65-yard Tommie Armstrong touchdown pass late in the third quarter and an Armstrong 15-yard touchdown run — and two-point conversion — with 6:52 remaining cut the Trojans’ lead to 45-42.  Unfortunately, at least as far as the ‘Huskers are concerned, a failed fourth-down attempt ended their second-to-last drive at the Trojans 30-yard line with 2:31 remaining.  Cotton, likely rightly so, eschewed what would’ve been a 47-/48-yard field goal attempt that would’ve tied the game if successful; kicker Drew Brown‘s long make this season was 44 yards, and he was 2-of-6 from 40-49 yards overall.

The Trojans were forced to punt on their subsequent possession and the Cornhuskers got the ball at their own 32-yard line with :17 seconds remaining.  A Hail Mary on a play that began at the Nebraska 44-yard line was knocked away.

Explosive plays on both offense and special teams played a pivotal role in the Trojans’ second consecutive bowl win and sixth in their last seven — or at least stretching out the lead far enough that they could ultimately hang on.

Adoree’ Jackson opened up the scoring for the Trojans by returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, then followed that up with a third-quarter receiving touchdown that covered 71 yards.  Four minutes after the latter score, Buck Allen went 44 yards for a score that pushed USC to a 38-24 lead.

Jackson, a true freshman, was named the Player of the Game after accounting for 204 all-purpose yards while also putting in time at cornerback.

Cody Kessler, who announced after the win that he’ll be returning for his senior season,passed for 321 yards and three touchdowns in the win.  It was his seventh 300-yard game of the season.  Armstrong, meanwhile, passed for a career-high 381 yards and three touchdowns.  The performance marked the first time Armstrong has eclipsed 300 yards in a single game.

Hit total offense output of 422 yards set a Nebraska bowl record, as did his passing yardage.

The two teams combined for 1,040 yards of offense, 525 for the Cornhuskers and 515 for the Trojans.  USC also tied a Holiday Bowl record with 12 penalties.

With the Trojans’ win, the Pac-12 is the only conference that’s played more than one bowl game that’s undefeated.  The SEC is 1-0 after playing its first postseason game Saturday, while the Big 12 won’t play its first bowl game until Monday afternoon (West Virginia vs. Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl).

The Big Ten, meanwhile, saw its mark dip to 2-2, although, given the fact that many thought the league could toss-up a doughnut as all 10 conference members were/are underdogs, that’s quite the positive start.

Amidst shows of Bo support, ‘Huskers trail Trojans at the half

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With Nebraska’s former coach playing a a supporting role in the game’s television storyline, it was USC that grabbing hold of the first-half advantage, ofttimes in spite of itself.

Despite shooting itself in the foot on multiple occasions, the Trojans were able to overcome those mistakes and take a 24-17 lead after two quarters of play in the National University Holiday Bowl.  Neither team led by more than seven points at any point in the first half, with the lead changing hands on three different occasions and tied two other.

Were it not for multiple miscues, though, the Trojans could’ve easily seen a double-digit halftime lead.

USC was flagged a whopping nine times for 72 yards, including three 15-yarders.  Two of those were called on All-American defensive end Leonard Williams on back-to-back plays.  The Holiday Bowl record, incidentally, is 12.

Additionally, USC defensive backs dropped at least three potential interceptions.

The Trojans defense did play well overall, though, as they held the Cornhuskers to 187 yards of total offense.  The ‘Huskers, one of the top rushing teams in the country, averaged just 1.5 yards per carry; they came into the game averaging 5.5 ypc.  They also held onto and picked off a pass late in the half that kept NU from putting at least three points on the scoreboard.

Tommie Armstrong did toss a pair of touchdown passes for the ‘Huskers, while Adoree’ Jackson returned a kick 98 yards for USC’s first points of the day.

One of the more interesting aspects of the first half — and leading up to the game — was the obvious and very public support the Nebraska football players and coaching staff still maintain for Bo Pelini.  On the ride over to the stadium, a seat was left empty in honor of the dismissed head coach.  In a pregame speech, interim head coach Barney Cotton told the players to play for “God, teammates and Bo Pelini.”

During the game, several players gave visual shoutouts to their former sideline boss.

‘Huskers rally past Iowa… and save Pelini’s coaching skin in process?

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Those sounds you may have heard toward the end of the second quarter of the Nebraska-Iowa game? It was a mob in Lincoln firing up their torches and sharpening their pitchforks.  Whether what happened over the next two-plus quarters — and extra time — has quieted the grousing and grumbling in the nation’s heartland, however, remains to be seen.

What is clear is that Nebraska mounted a massive comeback, in part because Iowa failed to capitalize on first-half opportunities… and then failed to put the game away late… and then stunned the Iowa City crowd in overtime to “steal” a 37-34 win.

The Hawkeyes took a 24-7 lead at the midway point of the second quarter, although the damage could’ve — and likely should’ve — been much, much worse. Twice in the first half, the Hawkeyes drove into the red zone, and inside the 10-yard line even, only to turn the ball over to the Cornhuskers. At worst the lead at that point should’ve been 30-7; at best, it would’ve been a seemingly insurmountable 38-7 deficit for the ‘Huskers on the road.

Instead, the ‘Huskers dodged those bullets and began firing some of their own. A touchdown with :20 left in the second quarter cut the lead to 24-14. NU then shut Iowa’s offense down for most of the second half while scoring 14 points on offense/special teams to take a 28-24 lead.

De’Mornay Pierson-El‘s 80-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter was looking like the winning score until a Jake Ruddock five-yard touchdown pass to running back Jordan Canzeri with 1:49 remaining put the Hawkeyes back on top 31-28. Tommie Armstrong Jr. then led the ‘Huskers on a drive that was capped by a field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime.

Iowa’s possession in the first overtime resulted in a field goal.  On Nebraska’s possession, Armstrong Jr. tossed a nine-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Bell that, after a replay review, gave the Cornhuskers the come-from-behind win.

Despite the dramatic win that showed the tremendous heart on that squad, the questions surrounding Bo Pelini‘s future with the program will still swirl.

Nebraska improved to 9-3 on the season with a bowl game remaining. In each of Pelini’s previous six seasons in Lincoln, the ‘Huskers had lost four games; they’ve won 10 games in three seasons and nine in three others. Is that enough for the fan base and, more importantly, the administration?

It’s not that the Cornhuskers are a bad program under Pelini, it’s that they’re not even remotely the Cornhuskers of Tom Osborne.  Or, more to the point, they’re not even the Cornhuskers of Frank Solich.  In Osborne’s 25 seasons, NU never lost four games in a season and only lost three games in a season eight times.  Certainly Osborne is a lofty barometer for Pelini, but it’s not beyond the pale to think that the Cornhuskers should’ve returned to the national stage at some point during the current coach’s seven-year tenure.  Hell, Solich lost three or fewer games in four of his six seasons — either one or two losses in three of those years — and can claim one conference championship; Pelini’s won none in a tenure that’s one year beyond what Solich got from the university.

It wouldn’t be a shock to see Pelini remain with the Cornhuskers.  It also wouldn’t be a shock to see the two sides part ways.  Either way, it’s a situation that bears monitoring as the 2014 coaching carousel gets set to swing into high gear.

Blech Friday: Hawkeyes atop ‘Huskers in first-half turnover fest

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If you wanted to put a DVD in a time capsule to explain to future generations — or aliens — how Big Ten football is viewed by most of the country, the Black Friday Nebraska-Iowa would do the trick.

At the end of two quarters of play, the Hawkeyes lead the Cornhuskers 10-7 in Iowa City.  The game’s first touchdown, not so unexpectedly, came on a 17-yard interception return by Iowa’s John Lowdermilk in the middle of second quarter.  The only other touchdown, a five-yard pass from NU’s Tommie Armstrong Jr. to Ameer Abdullah with :20 seconds left, came after the sixth turnover of the half.

The offenses from both sides were, well, offensive for the better part of the first half.  Or, if you prefer, the defenses were stellar.  Either way, it was a half that made offensive aficionados cringe and/or throw up a little bit in their mouths.

Midway through the second quarter, the two teams combined for 150 yards of offense (Iowa 110, Nebraska 40); the Hawkeyes would finish the half with 178 yards and the Cornhuskers 92.  The Cornhuskers didn’t complete a pass until there were less than two minutes left in the second quarter, and 34 of their 49 first-half passing yards came on one play.

Iowa had five first-half possessions, and those ended with two interceptions, a fumble, a field goal and taking a knee at the end of the half.  Two of those turnovers, incidentally, came in the red zone, while the fourth of the four led to NU’s lone score.  The Hawkeyes also fumbled a punt back to the ‘Huskers to account for their four turnovers.

Nebraska had six possessions, those of which ended in a pair of punts, a missed field goal, the pick-six, another interception and the touchdown.